Art, Music and Death Amidst the COVID 19 Pandemic:

Musings on Julio Nakpil’s “Deus Omnipotens et Misericors (Requiescat et pace), Marcha Funebre” (1943)

The Research Center for Culture, Arts and Humanities of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, was in the middle of retrieving and publishing the works of the Filipino composer Julio Nakpil (1867-1960) when we were locked down by the pandemic.

Manila was put on Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) starting March 15, 2020.  Mobility was restricted.  Schools and offices closed down. Theatre productions and music concerts were cancelled, and streets emptied as people stayed in the safety of their homes.

As I worked on the Nakpil project during the lockdown, I was reminded of his composition “Deus omnipotens et misericors” (Requiescat in pace), a funeral march that he composed in 1943 against the backdrop of world war 2. This symphonic ode was dedicated “to the memory of those who have fallen during the night…” (“a la memoria de los que han caido durante la noche.”), especially to his dead comrades who fought with him in the battle for freedom.

Music as a symbolic representation of grief over the experience of death, is embedded in this composition by Nakpil. With little education and with very little training in music, he was a witness to the Japanese Occupation of Manila during WWII in 1943.  He composed this funeral march to help him come to terms with his experience, to be able to endure the pain and possibly to escape from the vicious reality of those times.

The Deus Omnipotens et Misericors, commences with a hollow deathly sound in the bass accompanied by a foreboding low lying melody. He brings in sporadic notes of the flute in the high register to bring tension against the foreboding and lugubrious reality.  Interspersed with the pathetic low registered sound are lovely harmonic melodies that reminisce of a beautiful past, or of the prospect of a bright future that is yet to be known.

Nakpil’s funeral march is a lament of an artist struggling to understand and find solution to the terror and despair brought by destruction to humanity. It is in the arts that he found solace and a glimmer of hope to continue on in his fight.

Today, as the world experiences another unprecedented situation with the “ghost enemy” of the COVID-19 virus, humanity is again under attack. With the economy shut down and people dependent only on the government for support, a funeral march like Deus Omnipotens et Misericors is an apt expression about what is happening, most especially to the arts. It is my hope that the Arts it will not be among those fallen in the night and the subject of other funeral marches in ages to come. 

Maria Alexandra Iñigo Chua, PhD is the Director of the Research Center for Culture, Arts and Humanities of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines.


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